I was recently reading about internship programs, and it took me back to the days when I was an undergraduate communication studies major aspiring to be a journalist. Two very fortuitous events happened to me during this time of my life when I was a self-supporting college student trying to make ends meet as best as I could. They both occurred when I was a junior. First, I was awarded a journalism scholarship because I had worked very hard on the student newspaper and had accumulated a lot of the so-called “clips” that can get your foot in the door for a job after graduation. Secondly, I was also awarded a summer internship as a feature writer with a major metropolitan newspaper – also partially due to the large number of clips I had in tow.
Fortunately, the internship program was a paid one, enabling me to keep financially afloat during a very challenging time in which I had to pay tuition costs out of my own pocket.
Highly Valuable Work Experience
The internship not only paid in dollars. It more importantly paid off in the best learning experience of my entire life to date. I think I learned more during that summer internship than I did over the entire course of my four years as an undergraduate student. Working day-to-day with professional journalists, attending editorial meetings and meeting the rigors of one deadline after the next, was a value that cannot be measured in dollars. In hindsight, I would have completed that summer internship without pay, and I would have still come out way ahead on the job-skills/career-advancement pathway.
This kind of experience is highly effective workforce development on an individual basis, which brings me to my question: Should all internships be paid?
Typical Providers of Unpaid Student Internships
Thinking about this question brought me back to an impressionable interview I had about one year ago with Phil Gardner, Director of the Collegiate Employment Research Institute at Michigan State University. Since 1985, Gardner has conducted a lot of research about internship programs. He explained to me that one of the worse “offenders” in the world of unpaid internships is the federal government where highly coveted and competitive summer Congressional internships go unpaid. Other so-called offenders include hospitals where nursing clinicals are not paid, small non-profit organizations, small businesses with under several hundred employees, and business startups. Gardner also pointed out that oftentimes even big companies will not pay communications and public relations interns while at the same time they typically pay interning engineers and other business-related positions.
Winter Break Internships a Growing Trend
In “Resume Builder or Rip-Off?”, recently published by Inside Higher Ed, it was pointed out that internship programs were becoming a growing trend, with shorter-term winter break internships increasing in numbers. It was also pointed out that Internships.com , a web portal all about student internships, had data showing a 46 percent increase in winter internship postings from the 2010-11 to 2011-12 academic years. However, less than half of winter internships were noted as being paid.
What are the Legalities?
A big concern with all this growth of internships, especially during tough economic times, is whether or not too many employers are illegally taking advantage of unpaid internships to obtain free labor. Basically, all internships must comply with six criteria that fall under the Fair Labor Standards Act, but many do not comply.
In a New York Times article from April 2012, headlined “The Unpaid Intern, Legal or Not,” it was explained that “violations are widespread,” with the Labor Department “cracking down on firms that fail to pay interns properly and expanding efforts to educate companies, colleges and students on the law regarding internships.”
Note from the White House
The White House has also addressed this issue, albeit briefly in one sentence of its recent February 2012 announcement of the Community College to Career Fund proposal: “The Fund will also support paid internships for low-income community college students that will allow them to simultaneously earn credit for work-based learning and gain relevant employment experience in a high-wage, high-skill field.”
What are Your Thoughts?
Note the word “paid” in the White House statement. Should all internships be paid? In my summer internship from many years ago I brought previous writing experience from working on the college newspaper and an extremely energetic work ethic to prove my metal, so to speak. I was also very open to, and sought out, constructive criticism from my much more experienced colleagues on the job. The end result was that I brought some decent value to the feature writing department at a pay scale that was minimum wage and hence much less than my cohorts. In other words, the paper benefitted too.
As I already mentioned, I would have worked that summer for free because of the sheer volume of benefits that it brought to my career-advancement aspirations. I’m sure the Congressional interns would also agree that going the free route is more than okay in the grand scheme of things.
But there are many students who can’t afford to go the free route, so they are forced out of even considering the possibility of applying for an internship program. So, should not all student internships be paid internships? In fact, I would argue that they should be paid at a rate that is higher than minimum wage. After all, how many students are out there who can bring good and energetic value to your company during an internship but are not applying because either the pay is too low or non-existent?